What is critical thinking?

There are as many different definitions of “critical thinking” as there are definitions. There doesn’t seem to be any specific point about critical thinking on which everyone agrees. There are certain points which do often recur, such as the need for knowledge, the need to ask questions and analyze, the need to understand cognitive and group biases.

Before I address what can make one a better critical thinker, I do want to dispel the belief that critical thinking is somehow innate. Various studies purport to “prove” that skepticism towards religious claims is innate, but such neuro-bullshit blob studies are not reliable. It is very unlikely that the capacity for critical thinking has anything to do with brain structure at birth.

I don’t remember who said this, but I thought it was a good analogy: we treat arguments as war, but as critical thinkers we have to be scouts instead of soldiers. We need to be out there looking for data, actively confronting what’s out there, instead of being entrenched and solely looking for ways to defeat the other side.

The goal of critical thinking, hopefully, is to be better at evaluating claims. We need to be better at evaluating claims because it’s harder to make good decisions if we’re doing so on the basis of bad evaluations. We don’t want to be taken in by lies, scams, cults, pseudo-science, bad reasoning, and so on. And yet many people do.

Since there’s so much disagreement, let me tell you what critical thinking means to me. I think pretty early I got into the habit of asking questions about things I heard. If someone made a statement of causality (X causes Y), I wondered if it might not be the opposite way, or some other way.

So to me that’s one hugely important kind of question: is the causal relation being presented correct? Cause and effect help us understand how systems (social as well as technological) work, but it’s easy to get it in reverse, get it wrong, or confuse correlation with causation (or vice-versa!).

For example, a common statement is that poverty is caused by a lack of education. This is a profoundly silly statement. Obviously poverty is not caused by a lack of education but by a lack of money, which is only connected to a lack of education because we live in a capitalist system where wages, like all other prices, are set relative to buying power. Since there are fewer people with diplomas, they have more buying power and thus can get higher wages. So every time you see a causal statement, you always have to ask: is that really how reality works?

A second important question is, what does that mean? It’s obvious enough to look at actual logical statements, but we often gloss over metaphorical speech, frames, the margins of discourse, or narratives, without really examining them.

For example, I’ve written about gatekeepers and statements they make, like “no one wants more abortions.” A proper response to these kinds of statements would be: is that really true? Might there be some people who want more abortions? Is there a good argument for that position?

Another example is the attempt to reframe pseudo-science as real science, such as the neuro-bullshit I mentioned earlier. When confronted with such claims, we have to verify them, despite our knee-jerk reflex of accepting anything that looks technical and scientific (such as blob brain scans).

A third question is, how does this work? Often claims are made which do not fit a greater model of how reality works. Any attempt to work out how the statement might integrate such a model reveals the inconsistency.

For example, the statement that the police exists to help us can seem superficially plausible. After all, that’s its theoretical purpose. But any attempt to connect this with how the police works ends in failure. The police enforces the laws enacted by the power elite, is paid by the power elite, protects large property holders and owners of the means of production, and most people are not either of those things. The actions of the police also do not jibe with the statement (although that can always be rationalized with the “they deserved it” rhetoric).

A fourth question is to look at any attack or accusation and wonder, is this a projection? For the advocates of some ideologies, projection is a routine maneuver. See that link for some examples.

A fifth question is, who or what is the source? Such a question may seem irrelevant to people who are only concerned with “logical” analysis, but people who have an interest in lying to you are obviously more likely to be lying to you, and people who are not qualified to make a statement are not likely to get it right.

For example, petitions of “climate skeptics” break both criteria: they are put together by PR companies who are paid by oil and car corporations, and they show a list of people who, for the most part, have diplomas in completely different fields. Of course a mathematician can be right about global warming, but who would you trust more, someone with a mathematics degree or a climate science degree? Especially in areas where you cannot have all the information, you must select your sources carefully and make sure they don’t have an interest in lying to you.

The most basic question, which encompasses all of them, is: is this true? Or, barring that, is this likely to be true? And how could I verify it?

The general principle, I think, is to keep asking questions about what one hears and reads. But the fact that we put a priority on asking questions is itself a problem; asking questions is no good if you have no relevant knowledge that can help you formulate an answer or articulate a response.

This is a big flaw in the “skeptic” kind of critical thinking: they think the scientific method is enough to evaluate claims and don’t believe in acquiring knowledge. If we don’t add new information and try to answer the questions we raise, we’re just rearranging our ignorance around like furniture.

[First false view:] “Critical thinking” is a skill. No it is not. At best this view reduces criticism to second-rate or elementary instruction in informal and some formal logic.

Noticing what’s not being said on a topic is just as important as noticing what is being said. But you can’t have perspective on that unless you already know the context of what’s being said, which depends on you already having the missing information.

So it’s important to read about other topics and expand our ideological horizons. You’ve just got to go out of your comfort zone if you’re going to be a critical thinker. And that’s not something many people are comfortable with. The belief in critical thinking as a sort of mechanical operation with emphasis on logical fallacies is appealing to more people because it doesn’t require one to re-examine one’s own opinions. But that’s not critical thinking.

There’s also a more subtle form of knowledge, esthetic appreciation if you will, which seems to me to be a necessary part of evaluating claims. Things like music, decor, levels of language, are sometimes used to deceive people, especially in more engineered settings. You gotta be able to sniff out these things and realize that someone is trying to hoodwink you, instead of being oblivious to these techniques. For example, these techniques are used extensively in LGAT (large-group awareness training) cults but very few people seem to detect it.

There is a lot of emphasis on logical fallacies as a key to better thinking (e.g. baloney detection kit). Actually, logical fallacies are not that important. Most of the time we speak or write, we are not engaged in making formal arguments; to reduce fluid language and improvised turns of phrase to formal arguments is just silly and unproductive. We should be less concerned with making petty logical counters to what someone says and more concerned about whether it’s actually true.

Adherence to a group is dangerous to one’s critical thinking faculties. The dangers of groupthink are of course well defined and discussed, but most people do not think of themselves as following some level of groupthink, which means our knowledge about groupthink is essentially useless. Given that fact, the best thing to do is to join as few groups as possible, and to be inherently suspicious of any group policy. I realize that most people are social and will not follow these rules: but they are absolutely necessary in order to maintain any kind of objectivity.

We must differentiate between “critical thinking” and denialism and bigotry. Here is an example of “critical thinking” being used as a justification for genderism:

[I]s it fair to say that it is a myth that age reduces the sexual value of women more quickly than for men? After all, a society that generally considers older women as physically attractive as younger ones has yet to be discovered, whereas the attractive older man is an anthropological commonplace. The author is ignoring the more fundamental possibility that sexual value has something to do with reproductive value, making nature partly (largely?) responsible for the double standard of aging. A more educational analysis might suggest that a huge cosmetics industry is both cause and effect of the link between youth and female beauty.

However, the idea that sex differences in reproductive biology could underlie sex differences at the psychological and sociological levels is ideologically off-limits to most sociologists.

Gabennesch goes on to “prove” that behavioral innateness is important because of twin studies and defends evolutionary psychology on that basis. Now obviously Gabennesch says these things because he has never thought critically about genderism or evolutionary psychology.

He’s never actually read any anthropology, or he’d know that there are countless societies that contradict basic evopsych assumptions. He’s never actually read any feminist literature or he’d understand that these concepts of “sexual value” and “reproductive value” are inherently tied to male exploitation of female sexuality and therefore presuppose genderism. We say the “sexual value” of women is higher when they are younger because men get sexually aroused by younger women. That’s all there is to it.

But if you’re going to write about a topic about which you have such a deep level of ignorance, no amount of skill will help you. As I’ve said, it’s just moving your ignorance around. You have to go out there and seek out new, better models of social realities, otherwise you’ll say ridiculously stupid things like Gabennesch in this article, and ultimately you will end up fighting for the wrong side, the side that’s against human rights and human well-being.

Holocaust deniers, climate change deniers, evolution deniers, think they are using “critical thinking” because they criticize something, but criticism is pointless unless it’s backed with facts. Otherwise it collapses into a conspiracy theory as a rationalization to explain the lack of evidence. The same thing happens with bigotry: MRAs believe in a grand feminist conspiracy, evolutionary psychologists and Creationists believe their work is opposed by a socialist elitist cabal, homophobes believe in a society-wide homosexual agenda, and so on. This is a standard devolution.

8 thoughts on “What is critical thinking?

  1. Independent Radical February 6, 2015 at 22:38

    I think an important part of critical thinking is knowing what’s relevant and what is not, given the claim being made. Feminists do not doubt the claim that older women are regarded as unsexy and therefore worthless. The points that are up for debate are as follows.

    1. Do people have an innate tendency to perceive older women as unsexy?
    2. Do they have an innate tendency to view women as worthless if they are “unsexy”?
    3. Is it therefore morally acceptable to mistreat older women?

    The third question is the most important one, because the aim of most people who make this argument is to defend the mistreatment of older or otherwise “unsexy” women. The answer is clearly “no”. The fact that a behaviour is a product of nature does not make it morally acceptable. So the entire paragraph is pretty much irrelevant to the real debate in my opinion. I think it is useful to know about logical fallacies, because many of them (e.g. appeal to tradition, appeal to popularity, appeal to nature, etc.) help to identity irrelevent statements that are regularly made in debates.

    However, whether a statement is irrelevant depends on the particularities of the question being asked. For example, if the question is “is pornography use morally acceptable?”, the fact that the majority of people in the US (66% I believe) think that it isn’t morally acceptable, is not relevent to the question at hand (the majority of Americans can be wrong about things.) If the question is “can we form an effective movement against the pornography industry in the United States?”, then the fact that the majority of people oppose it is relevent. The pornographers want to convince us that any struggle against their industry is pointless, but the fact that many people in the US oppose it suggests otherwise. Too many people assume that statements of a certain format (e.g. “the majority of people think…..”) are always fallacies, but whether they are fallacies or not depends on the specifics of the debate. Critical thinkers should respond to the specifics of the argument, instead of blindly following a script.

    • Francois Tremblay February 7, 2015 at 02:32

      Yea, but how much of that 66% are fundamentalist Christians who don’t want anything to do with women’s rights?

  2. australopithecene February 6, 2015 at 23:02

    I really like this post. The cartoon got me thinking, though, on absolutist claims about morality, which I think might be a different subject from that of this post. I think absolutist, universal claims about morality, like the dad in the cartoon is making, can be made with critical reflection. Or that could be my cognitive bias against moral relativism showing.

    • Independent Radical February 6, 2015 at 23:12

      The problem with moral relativism is that they see any moral claim, no matter how complex or qualified, as an “absolutist” claim. If you say anything is right or wrong, they will call you an absolutist. Even if you establish that your claim is being made within a particular context and even if you defend your claim with rational arguments. Ironically moral relativism is pretty simplisitc and absolutist. I think the term “absolutist” is just another example of liberal rhetorical being used to dismiss non-liberal claims, while pretending that one is “inclusive” and “tolerant” and has no ideology.

      • australopithecene February 6, 2015 at 23:20

        Yep, and that charge of absolutism against moral claims is so internally incoherent it does my head in. It just collapses in on itself. That’s why it shits me.That and the fact that, ethically, it leads down monstrous paths sometimes.

    • Francois Tremblay February 7, 2015 at 02:38

      I agree that you can make universal claims about morality. I would only call myself a relativist in the sense that truth is relative to the individual, but this does not mean we cannot make universal claims, which puts me at odds with actual moral relativists. Actual moral relativism is a blight on the intellects of the West.

  3. Liudmila November 30, 2016 at 20:54


    A few questions about aesthetics.

    Why did Kant think of beauty as a mysterious supersensible property of art works?

    Why did he believe that standards of beauty were absolute and universal?

    Would you agree that Kant’s aesthetics is a… “farrago of superstition and unsubstantiated assertion”?

    I cannot understand why anybody ever believed any of it.

    What’s worse is that Kant infected Western thought with the intellectual disease of imagining that works of art are somehow “sacred” objects set off from the rest of ordinary experience.


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